Acrylamide levels in food: passing the hot potato

November 2016 Report
Acrylamide in food 1

Executive summary

This report analyses the information released by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) on the levels of acrylamide, a carcinogenic chemical, found in many day-to-day foods such as bread, coffee, biscuits, crisps and baby foods consumed in Europe. It also looks at the measures that business operators in the agricultural, manufacturing and hospitality sectors can implement across the food chain to prevent the formation of acrylamide. It concludes with a set of recommendations to improve the legislative proposal currently under discussion in the European Union to regulate the presence of acrylamide in food to provide sufficient protection to consumers.

Contaminants are toxic substances that have not been intentionally added to food. These substances may be present as a result of the packaging, handling and distribution processes, environmental contamination, or as in the case of acrylamide, a result of food production. Acrylamide forms when starchy food products are heated up – typically during cooking – at high temperatures and under low moisture conditions.

The presence of acrylamide in food cannot be fully eliminated. However, robust legislation and the application of best practice by food business operators can significantly reduce its levels in food. The European food industry has developed a number of versions of a “toolbox” outlining possible voluntary interventions for reducing acrylamide in food since 2006. In parallel, the European Commission (EC) has put in place non legally -binding recommendations for Member States to regularly test levels of acrylamide present in food as a way of monitoring the application of these measures through a harmonised sampling program.

Moreover, the EC has set a range of indicative values for the levels of acrylamide present in different food groups. These are intended to serve as a benchmark to assess the extent to which the Codes of Practice have been applied. However, a major review published by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in 2015 showed that the voluntary measures had not led to a reduction in the level of acrylamide found across food groups other than potato crisps.

The analysis of acrylamide levels found in foodstuffs on the European market presented here includes newly released EFSA data for the period between 2013-2014. The results confirm that the current approach, which relies on the voluntary application of the codes of practice by the industry, has not led to a reduction in acrylamide levels found in foods. In addition, it does not provide sufficient protection to consumers, as food samples found to contain acrylamide at levels many times greater than the EC’s benchmark continue to be placed on the market.

Finally, the Commission has put forward a proposal that would essentially extend this failed approach by making the application of the code of practice mandatory while failing to set enforceable legally-binding limits for acrylamide in line with achievable reductions. The report ends with recommendations as to how the proposal can be strengthened in a way that will lead to a significant reduction of acrylamide levels in food sold in Europe.

Key findings

  • There continues to be no substantial trend across food groups towards lower levels of acrylamide. While trend analysis across major food categories suggests a slight downward trend for acrylamide levels in potato crisps and snacks, crisp bread, biscuits and crackers, acrylamide levels in French fries, gingerbread and roasted coffee suggest concentrations are unchanged or increasing.
  • A very significant proportion of food products placed on the market (2,200 or 12% of the total) presented unacceptably high levels of acrylamide above the current benchmark set by the European Commission. The percentage of food samples above the benchmark levels was similar for food samples produced outside and within the European Economic Area.
  • The highest acrylamide concentrations at 38,000 and 7,900 μg/Kg were found in a sample of instant coffee in Belgium and a sample of French fries in Denmark. These are 42 and 13 times higher than the current EC benchmark for these products;
  • The highest acrylamide concentrations for food products targeted at babies were 1905, 1508 and 582 μg/Kg. These were found in samples of baby rusks, baby foods and in processed cereal baby products taken in Germany, UK and the Czech Republic respectively. These levels are 10, 30 and 12 times higher than the current EC benchmarks for these products. In 2014, 12% and 28% of baby foods and processed cereal foods for infants respectively exceeded the EC benchmark;
  • The countries with the largest percentage of samples with levels of acrylamide above the current EC benchmark were: Greece (75%), Estonia and Sweden (20%), Belgium and Ireland (18%), Italy (17%), Norway (16%), Austria (15%), Spain and Finland (14%).

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